Why We Work

Most mornings I jog by the small single-room cabin in which President Andrew Johnson was born.  It’s tiny.  And it’s a reminder to me that the “typical” North Carolinian born a few hundred years ago faced incredible hardships.  A few centuries ago, a newborn boy would have had a significantly lower chance of making it past childhood.  Assuming he survived to adulthood, he would spend most of it engaged in strenuous manual labor (likely agriculture) in order to survive.  Most of what he ate, he would have grown or killed himself.  At least one of his children would die in childbirth and likely another would die of illnesses we now easily cure.

Today, so much has changed.  Glance down a grocery store aisle… walk through a drug store… touch — yes, touch — an iPad.

For basically the entire history of the human species, we struggled to subsist (recall Malthus), and then bam!  Everything changed as the Industrial Revolution, massive advances in agricultural productivity and then the Information Technology Revolution transformed society completely.  Now we live in an Age of Abundance.  While the abundance is not evenly distributed, the average American consumes more than four hours of television per day.  2013 > 1813.

Given all of this tremendous change, how have companies changed?  Surprisingly, not very much.

Here and there, you find a few notable examples of companies doing daring and innovative things as it relates to the workforce:

  • Salesforce.com is eliminating the requirement that you work from an office
  • Gore has a flat team structure and doesn’t appoint official “managers”
  • Netflix has a “no vacation policy” policy

For most of us though, the work-style improvements fostered by a knowledge-based work economy are a Foosball table, casual Friday, and the occasional company happy hour.  As a knowledge worker, I hate the idea that work is so 20th century.  (When I worked at a consulting firm, it bothered me that face-time at the client’s office was so important versus the outcome of the work.)  But as a CEO, I am conscious that people need to spend time together to feel invested in the team.  All kinds of conversations — brainstorming sessions, performance feedback, informal questions, and more — work better when they are done in person.  And even a “no vacation policy” policy is challenging, because it still begs the question, “well, at least, what is the norm?”

Last week, I had lunch with a successful CEO whom I admire.  ”I’m confused about this question of how we change to workplace for knowledge workers,” I confessed.  ”Do we insist everyone work a rigid 10 hour day so we build teamwork?  Or, do we let go completely and tell people to do whatever they want — but results matter?”  He smiled, leaned back, and said something I found surprising: “I’m confused too.”  What!?  Surely, I thought, this guy would have it figured out!

We both agreed that in the Age of Abundance, work is as much about affiliation as it is trading time for purchasing power.  Most knowledge workers could provide for the basic needs they and their families have at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy (food, shelter, security) in just a day per week.  Yet they work far more than that.  Why?  Some want to buy more stuff or save more for retirement.  Others care about achieving the team’s goals.  Yet others just love what they do and the opportunity to create.  Realistically, for most of us it’s a combination of motives.

In all of those reasons, there is a desire to achieve something more than just subsistence through our work.  And I think our work is enhanced if we build community as we build a company.  At Three Ships Media, this is something I am thinking about more and more.  I know our approach isn’t perfect, but here are some things we are trying as we aim to build community:

  • We are (for the first time) publicly listing each person’s top 3-5 goals for the quarter so the entire company can measure our progress with total transparency
  • We hold a short company-wide Friday afternoon huddle each week, which is an informal pulse check in with our peers to learn how their week went
  • We are adding new benefits like 401k and free house-cleaning that don’t show up in a paycheck — but that provide meaningful support to our shipmates
  • We do a monthly company survey and share the results openly. The survey asks about progress, work environment, and company values
  • We hold monthly open meetings where there is an open forum for questions about our direction and our business and an opportunity to give me feedback

We are hiring an office manager right now, and once we have that person join us, we may experiment with some other ways to build our community here at Three Ships Media.  Perhaps breakfasts in the morning, or a company lunch each week?

We have been blessed to grow quickly and experience significant success.  At three years old, we are still a young business.  However, we are working quickly to add more of the structure which supports a high level of accountability.  With a high level of accountability, there is no reason that we cannot offer in turn greater flexibility.  The approach isn’t “go crazy and blow up all the management rules.”  It’s more incremental: (1) develop conviction around our mission (pulling customers in so our clients can push their business forward); (2) gain commitment to our vision (being the #1 provider of digital solutions to companies where localized marketing matters); (3) have a well-defined structure that offers accountability to each shipmate so that they know exactly what good looks like, and they and their boss are regularly talking about their performance; (4) be comfortable offering the team flexibility.

I know we don’t yet have the perfect balance, but I do think this is an exciting time in the evolution of Three Ships Media.  And broadly, it’s an exciting time in the evolution of management.  I’m grateful we get to shape the conversation about how the 21st Century workplace will work.